Joe Walther of Cornell’s Communication Department gave a talk today on Misattribution and attributional redirection in distributed virtual groups. [PDF].

One thing that Walther’s studies pointed out was that the idea of “presence” is probably not only over-rated but entirely wrong. We assume that CMC group work fails because there are not enough cues. But his studies show that high levels of communication and trust built over time far outweigh cues. And further that cues, even neutral cues, have a negative effect. Joe says this is because textual communication without f2f creates “hyperpersonal communications” in which people are more intimate than in f2f. People reveal more about themselves in email than in a conversation for example. This is from his Don’t Look Before You Leap paper of 1999.
Groups working effectively through high textual communcation on long term projects can lose effectiveness by simply seeing pictures of each other! So much for virtual presence.

The worse cases for virtual work groups are low communications, short term projects, and too much time spent on allocation of tasks (rather than working in parallel).

Here is a version of Joe’s Rules for Successful Virtual Group Work from the paper referenced above.

  1. Frequent communication, more frequent than in unmediated groups;
  2. Confirming receipt of messages;
  3. Making sure all members are included on all messages (by e-mail, when a group-based computer conferencing system is not being used)
  4. Early and continuous work on both organizing and substantive contributions to the team’s final project (rather than sequencing organization then substantive efforts)
  5. Substantially greater explicitness in questions, answers, agreements, and articulating expectations
  6. Earlier deadlines (more working ahead) and greater adherence to them

And here is a version that Joe actually gives to his students –which he says he gives to all his students but which they never follow. We can do better; can’t we?

  1. Get started right away. You don’t have as much time as you would off-line, because (a) you have to wait for replies instead of getting them instantly, and (b) it takes time to type. Don’t procrastinate; you can’t put off virtual work the way you can face-to-face group projects. Get started right away.
  2. Once you get started, communicate with one another often. Oftener than you think you should need to do. A lot. Very frequently. All the time.
  3. Overtly acknowledge that you have read one another’s messages. When you don’t, the message sender doesn’t know if…
    • You never saw it
    • You saw it and disagreed.
    • You saw it and totally agreed
    • The network is dead.
    • You’re dead.
  4. Be explicit about what you are expecting and what you are doing. That doesn’t mean be harsh; it means that subtlety doesn’t help you make yourself clear.
  5. Multitask getting organized and doing substantive work simultaneously. In face-to-face groups it’s typical to try to decide on an action plan (organizing) before doing the research, reading, and writing (substantive work) that go into a report. You don’t have the luxury to wait. Even if you end up reading the same material as someone else, you haven’t wasted your effort—more perspectives, more ways of looking at it. Duplicate, don’t allocate: Doing the least amount of work is not better than doing more than necessary.
  6. Stick to deadlines. If everyone sticks to deadlines, you’ll get along. If anyone doesn’t, everyone else will all of a sudden get very nervous.
One Response to “A picture erases the work of a thousand words”
  1. Paul says:

    In August 2006, Joe Walther moved to Michigan State. His new homepage is here.

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